Local government election hoardings are up, complete with pictures of smiling candidates and sometimes obscure one-liners. Right-wing lists of promises are inclined to take the typical rhetoric – to cut rates, council staff numbers, red tape, and to ‘open the books’. Candidates who have never been elected before make promises they may never be able to keep, often without looking at the public details available in the already open books of Council Annual Plans and Reports. Aspiring politicians spend disproportionate amounts to woo voters who are mostly uninspired even to carry out an easy postal vote.
The importance of local government is usually overlooked, except in complaint. Conservative voters moan they get nothing for their rates. That the council should do more with less, that there’s no accountability, that councils take money for nothing and rates are too high.
But local government services impact every element of our daily lives. We can tend to take for granted, the benefits of having our rubbish collected, reticulated water that’s usually safe to drink, sealed roads, great libraries, and civic amenities. We can disagree with how those services are provided, and by whom, and rightfully bemoan inefficiency, unaccountability and waste. But the buses usually run on time, and big budget projects like the city rail link benefit the whole region. Those council employees that people complain about, are people too, usually with a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the public sphere. We all deserve to be safe from dodgy building practices or hazardous activities and if takes ‘red tape’ to do that, then count me in.
Public water contamination incidents show just how dependent we are on reliable civic infrastructure to address public health issues, rather than to cause them. The rules governing discharges to waterways and aquifers are legitimate matters for local/regional government (though pretty hard to change). Whether we should be forced even to connect to any public water supply is another question. Political support for asset sales is as major an issue at local government level as it is at central level, given usually those assets generate enduring incomes that keep rates low. Promises to keep rates below population growth rate mean that levels of service can only decline in the absence of other tools which will all have their cost too. And if higher rates means better services, then I’m prepared to pay.
Traditional local government ‘core business’ focus on roads, rates and rubbish has been in support the interests of capital, allowing the exchange of goods and services in an ‘efficient’, mobile and regulated way, with minimal costs and burdens for ratepayers, (originally with franchise limited only to landowners). Conservative political views limit tolerance for more social or environmental goals. That’s meant it’s not always fair, or equitable, or serves the needs of all.
Given that so many social goods are distributed unjustly, councils can either perpetuate or alleviate environmental injustices. But motorways and power pylons go through poorer communities such as Mangere, Massey and Onehunga. Poorer communities often have poorer transport access, more pollution, lower quality amenity. Civic goods are distributed unevenly. Adverse air quality impacts disproportionately, with particulates polluting lower socio-economic groups in Christchurch. Poor people shiver with inadequate heating while breathing the smoke from wealthier peoples’ fires. NZ studies showed climate change affects coastal dwellers, those over 65 and poorer people more than others. Even participation in decision-making is unevenly distributed, as working class people have less capacity, power, knowledge and other resources with which to defend their environments. And unfortunately they’re less likely to vote.
It’s not easy for the wider public to make an informed choice about candidates even though policy information has improved through time. Word of mouth, networks and incumbency often assist the best guess. Even then, with a First Past the Post electoral system in most of New Zealand, the first choice doesn’t always get the most votes, with often more against than in support. In other instances, the candidates just fail to inspire. Government vetoes of local government aspirations can thwart democracy at community level.
Voters from the left should support greater council intervention and spending, not less, and tools that are equitable, supporting redistributive environmental and social policies. Local government is seldom sexy, but it’s always essential for environmental, safety and community benefits, as much as to balance the economic ones.
Christine Rose is employed as Kauri DieBack Community Co-ordinator by the Auckland Council. She was a local body politician for fifteen years and researched local government politics at the University of Auckland. All opinions expressed herein are Christine’s own. No opinion or views expressed in this blog or any other media, shall be construed as the opinion of the Council or any other organisation.